Collective effort by community, staff improves health care in Clearwater

Dr. Sandra Okezue, MP Frank Caputo, Dr. Chibuikem Ofoegbu, and Mayor Merlin Blackwell visit at a celebration dinner last summer. The dinner was held for the physicians to celebrate a year where they faced incredible challenges including changes to how the medical clinic operates and staffing shortages at the hospital. See story page 6 and 7. (Shelley Sim photo)Dr. Sandra Okezue, MP Frank Caputo, Dr. Chibuikem Ofoegbu, and Mayor Merlin Blackwell visit at a celebration dinner last summer. The dinner was held for the physicians to celebrate a year where they faced incredible challenges including changes to how the medical clinic operates and staffing shortages at the hospital. See story page 6 and 7. (Shelley Sim photo)
Clearwater leaders gather last summer to celebrate the resilience of their physicians. Pictured left to right front row are: Past Mayor John Harwood, Coun. Shelley Sim, Dr. Sandra Okezue, MP Frank Caputo, Yellowhead Community Services Vice Chair Shirley Frost, Coun. Barry Banford, Coun Lucy Taylor, medical student Anmol Mattu, and Dr. Kayode Bamigboje. In the back row (L-R): CAO John Thomas, Obi Okezue, regional district director Carol Schaffer, Mayor Merlin Blackwell and Coun. Bill Haring. (Kalen Jones photo)Clearwater leaders gather last summer to celebrate the resilience of their physicians. Pictured left to right front row are: Past Mayor John Harwood, Coun. Shelley Sim, Dr. Sandra Okezue, MP Frank Caputo, Yellowhead Community Services Vice Chair Shirley Frost, Coun. Barry Banford, Coun Lucy Taylor, medical student Anmol Mattu, and Dr. Kayode Bamigboje. In the back row (L-R): CAO John Thomas, Obi Okezue, regional district director Carol Schaffer, Mayor Merlin Blackwell and Coun. Bill Haring. (Kalen Jones photo)
This team of nurses work in Acute and Emergency units at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater. (IH photo)This team of nurses work in Acute and Emergency units at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital in Clearwater. (IH photo)

By Interior Health

Between April and September 2022, Clearwater hospital was forced to close its emergency department almost 60 times due to emergency department RN staffing vacancies.

But instead of finger pointing, people from multiple agencies talked together about how they could make a difference. And then they went to work.

Interior Health, the District of Clearwater, individual health administrators, Clearwater mayor and council, community residents, hospital nursing and non-nursing staff, physicians, the Rural and Remote Division of Family Practice and the B.C. Nurses Union worked to find solutions to a complex problem.

The end result – no closures since early September.

Mayor Merlin Blackwell is proud of the united effort that went in to supporting Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital and its emergency department.

“All of us are acting as recruiters and promoters of the community,” he said.

The mayor spoke about the Clearwater situation to his peers at the Union of B.C. Municipalities, saying he believes the key was getting to know the people in the health-care system so conversations in a spirit of trust could take place.

On the ground within the hospital, manager Heidi Schilling heard from the nursing staff that the overnight on-call shift was a barrier.

“That on-call rotation was not attractive and we were losing staff because of it.”

They eliminated the on-call rotation and created Medical and Surgical (called “med-surg”) nursing lines, knowing the pool to draw from is much larger. This also allowed the hospital to hire new grads who would not be in a position of working alone in the emergency department.

The med-surg nurses are trained in-house through the Professional Practice Office specialty education program to work in the emergency department.

“As well, we hired a registered psychiatric nurse and after supportive education, she is working to her full scope of practice in med-surg.”

Schilling also recognized the cooperation of the union, which allowed the transition to a new rotation to happen quickly.

“The BCNU also made a significant accommodation for us when we proposed the new rotation by allowing a quick turnaround on the postings.”

Another positive development was hiring a nursing unit clerk to take the administrative burden off frontline nurses so they were freed up to focus on nursing and not non-nursing duties.

“All of these steps together have been a tremendous benefit to us.

“I also want to thank the staff at Dr. Helmcken Memorial Hospital for their resilience and dedication to each other and the patients/clients we serve. Without your efforts and flexibility, we couldn’t have achieved what we did. I appreciate each of you and am forever grateful for you. You make a positive difference every day,” said Schilling.

Community support

While the practical steps on rotations were taking place in hopes nurses would want to work at the hospital, Mayor Blackwell and council were spreading the message about the benefits of living and working in a community as beautiful as Clearwater. They also let it be known that health-care staff moving to the district needed affordable accommodation.

That’s where residents joined the partnership. People offered suites and rental units at fair market value for visiting nurses or physicians, which also allowed them a place to live while they checked out the region as a place to find a permanent home.

In January, IH will rent a six-bedroom, fully furnished house for short term accommodation for staff who come to work in Clearwater and may want to stay. Each person has their own bedroom with a lock on the door and they have access to the rest of the house, including a communal kitchen.

“The landowner has been exceptionally accommodating and is also providing yard maintenance in the summer and snow removal in the winter as part of our contract with him,” said Heidi.

Welcoming

physicians

Physicians are another crucial member of the hospital team and Rural and Remote Division of Family Practice chapter co-ordinator Shelley Sim said Clearwater residents understand the importance of creating an environment where the physicians feel welcome and part of the community.

Last summer, a dinner was held for the physicians to celebrate a year where they faced incredible challenges including changes to how the medical clinic operates and staffing shortages at the hospital, all as COVID-19 raged on.

The MLA, MP, TNRD director and mayor and council were all invited to the dinner and the Clearwater physicians were “just thrilled,” said Shelley.

The Division contributes to that welcoming environment with gestures such as welcome baskets and opportunities for health and wellness experiences.

“We want the physicians to know they are wanted and appreciated.

“Any success is thanks to everyone at Dr. Helmcken hospital, Interior Health, Yellowhead Community Services, Area A director, mayor and council as well as the community,” Shelly added. “It’s a full team effort. Everyone who has been able to extend either funds or time has leaned in. The community was amazing coming forward with various housing options and now we can look forward to building new friendships and relationships.”

A precarious balance

There is still work to be done, the mayor warned.

“This is a precarious balance. The shortage of health-care workers will be a long run for us.

“We all have to recognize that this is not an Interior Health problem, this is not a community problem, this is everyone’s problem and we all need to continue to work together.”


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